Rafael Palmeiro has hit 60 homers in the past two seasons, but don't call him a home run hitter.
"I don't know if I have a home run swing. Those just come," said Palmeiro. "I'll hit my share of home runs, but I like to see myself as a pure hitter, a guy that's going to hit for power and hit for average, gets on base, can do it all."
He has done everything for the Orioles this season, hitting safely in nine of his past 10 games (.333, 14-for-42) with 10 runs, one double and 10 RBIs. Palmeiro's four home runs and 13 RBIs lead the team.
Last season, he was on a pace to hit 33 homers before settling for 23 when the strike hit Aug. 12. In his breakout year of 1993, Palmeiro hit 37 for the Texas Rangers.
The Chicago Cubs, who drafted Palmeiro in the first round in 1985, did not think Palmeiro could hit for power in the major leagues. After Palmeiro hit eight home runs in 1988, the Cubs traded him and two other players -- including Orioles teammate Jamie Moyer -- to Texas for, among others, closer Mitch Williams.
At first, the Cubs' projections appeared accurate. Palmeiro hit eight home runs with Texas in 1989 and 14 in 1990. But the totals continued to climb, culminating in his big power year in 1993.
Orioles manager Phil Regan said many players need several major-league seasons before they mature as power hitters.
"A lot of times, a player has to play and grow into his role and grow into the major leagues. Barry Bonds' first year he hit .240 and struck out 100-and-some times," Regan said after Sunday's 6-2 victory, which included Palmeiro's third home run in three games. "Sometimes, you need to let them know that they belong in the major leagues. That's probably what happened to [Palmeiro]. He's gotten to play regular, he's comfortable and he knows he belongs."
Palmeiro rarely showed a lack of power in college or the minors. A three-time All-American at Mississippi State, Palmeiro was second in the nation in home runs (29) in 1984. The next year, he hit five home runs in 73 games at Single-A Peoria, but in a full 140-game season at Double-A Pittsfield in 1985, he hit 12 and added three more in a September call-up to Chicago. In 1987, Palmeiro combined for 25 home runs between Triple-A Iowa (11) and Chicago (14).
The suggestion that he could not hit for power in the majors, Palmeiro said, was a bum rap.
"I came up to the big leagues, and I didn't hit many home runs my first
year. They just didn't think I would pan out to be a home run hitter," Palmeiro said. "I didn't have any doubts. I knew what I could do. I knew with time and maturing and playing games, I would get better."
Some say he has gotten better since moving to Camden Yards, with its cozy right-field porch. Last season, Palmeiro hit 40 points higher at home (.340) than on the road.
He also hit better than any other major-leaguer (.422) during the daytime. Two of Palmeiro's home runs over the weekend came during Saturday and Sunday afternoon games. Neither Palmeiro nor Regan can explain the first baseman's daytime success.
"He must see the ball better," said Regan, a former Cubs reliever. "Maybe he's used to Wrigley Field, I don't know."
5 Palmeiro said the park and the time of day have nothing to do with it. His home run prowess is more a product of where he hits in the lineup. Cal Ripken and Harold Baines hitting behind you has its advantages.
"No doubt about it. I've always felt good there," Palmeiro said of the No. 3 spot. "I feel like I get good pitches to hit, especially with men on base. [Ripken is] such a good hitter, I don't think they're going to be messing with me too much."
Palmeiro's power surge has prompted suggestions that he move into the cleanup spot, but Regan has no intentions of moving him.
"Maybe in high school your best hitter hits fourth," Regan said. "There are certain things you look for in a No. 3 hitter -- enough speed to stay out of the double plays, maybe a left-handed hitter, a guy with some power."
Last year, Palmeiro hit into fewer double plays (11) than Ripken (17), and Palmeiro stole 22 bases with Texas in 1993.
He also has a deceptively powerful swing that has made a believer out of Regan.
"He hits balls that I think, 'That ball's not going,' and then all of a sudden it's out," Regan said. "I think he has enough power."
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Ben McDonald (0-0, 1.50) vs. Red Sox's Rheal Cormier (1-0, 4.35)
A look at Rafael Palmeiro's development as a power hitter during his major-league career (ratio indicates at-bats per homer):
Yr, team .. .. .. HRs .. .. Ratio
'86, Cubs . .. .. . 3 .. ... 24.3
'87, Cubs . .. ... 14 .. ... 15.8
'88, Cubs . .. .. . 8 .. ... 72.5
'89, Rangers . .. . 8 .. ... 69.9
'90, Rangers . ... 14 .. ... 42.7
'91, Rangers . ... 26 .. ... 24.3
'92, Rangers . ... 22 .. ... 27.6
'93, Rangers . ... 37 .. ... 16.1
'94, Orioles . ... 23 .. ... 18.9
Totals . .. .. .. 155 .. ... 27.8